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Inspectors threatening to close Seaquarium

By Andres Viglucci

Miami Herald -

13 September 2003

Wiring, bridge over sharks among the safety violations

Miami-Dade County building officials closed sections of the venerable Miami Seaquarium on Friday and threatened to shut down the entire attraction after surprise inspections uncovered scores of safety violations in its public areas.

The violations include exposed electrical wiring, crumbling concrete and loose, corroded guardrails on stairways and viewing decks -- including the bridge over the shark moat.

Seaquarium's operators immediately began some repairs, and the park will remain open this weekend after some areas that inspectors said were unsafe because of loose guardrails or other problems were cordoned off -- including the two upper-story decks at the main reef tank. Gaps in the shark-pit bridge fence were temporarily covered with plywood panels.

But county building chief Charles Danger gave the park until Monday to repair a long list of electrical violations.

''They have Saturday and Sunday to clean it up. If it's not fixed by Monday, I will shut them down,'' Danger said in an interview, citing ``exposed wires everywhere, open electrical boxes everywhere, light posts where the wiring is bad everywhere.''

Also sealed off was a nonpublic tank where sick animals are cared for. Danger said he ordered animals removed from the tank because the supports holding up its concrete roof are dangerously deteriorated.

Seaquarium's operators said they will make all required repairs and expressed confidence the electrical items, which number nearly 80, would be fixed by the end of the weekend.


But Arthur Hertz, CEO of Coral Gables-based Wometco, the park's owner, denied any of the violations were a danger to visitors or employees.

''A park of our size and our age is bound to need some repairs. Most are very minor,'' he said. ``I don't think there is anything of any danger to anyone. I don't buy that at all.''

Danger said the county's inspection, prompted by a videotape of park conditions made by animal-rights activists, found abundant evidence of shoddy, patchwork maintenance, jerry-rigged wiring and long-neglected repairs throughout the nearly 50-year-old Seaquarium.

''You can see they were patching here and patching there, and patching on patches, and they have been doing this for some time,'' Danger said. ``That doesn't work when you have a corrosive environment. Now they have gotten a wake-up call. They're going to have to fix it up fast if they want to keep it open.''


The immediate focus is on life-safety issues in public areas, Danger said. But inspectors also compiled a lengthy list of less-urgent code violations at all 15 buildings at the park, which has been given 30 days to make those repairs.

Especially alarming, he said, was the condition of many of the handrails and guardrails that protect visitors and employees from falling into fish tanks or tumbling down stairs. The anchors on some, in particular at the reef tank, were so corroded they were ''completely gone'' and would not hold up if anyone leaned against them, Danger said.

County inspectors also discovered a crew doing repair work on the manatee tank without required permits.

Seaquarium operators did rapidly complete repairs at the home of its star attraction, Lolita the Killer Whale. Danger allowed the stands surrounding her tank to reopen Friday after they were shut down for a day because of corroded guardrails and deteriorated canopy support beams.

The citations come as Seaquarium is embroiled in a controversy over an agreement that allows it to pave over 6.5 acres of lushly landscaped public green space across the Rickenbacker Causeway for 500 parking spaces.


Danger sent inspectors out to Seaquarium earlier in the week after receiving a videotape of alleged violations from Russ Rector, whose Broward County-based Dolphin Freedom Foundation has long criticized the attraction's practice of holding and exhibiting marine mammals.

Rector said members of his group made the video in public areas of the Seaquarium after noticing numerous instances of exposed wires, cracked concrete and loose handrails during visits to the park to check on its animals' welfare.

He said the violations show park administrators have as little regard for its patrons and employees as for its animals.

''I may be an animal activist, but people come first in my book,'' he said, citing the thousands of children who visit the park every year on field trips. ``They were willing to play with the lives of these kids to save a few bucks.''


Many problems uncovered Thursday and Friday likely went unnoticed by the county for years, Danger said.

The reason, he said, is that inspections are usually carried out only in the case of complaints or when owners obtain permits to do work. In those cases, however, inspectors examine only the complaint area or the permitted work.

Structures older than 40 years must be inspected and re-certified every 10 years, Danger said -- a rule that covers many of Seaquarium's buildings, some of which are nearing 50 years of age.

But those inspections are carried out by private engineers hired by the owners, who certify to the county the buildings meet required codes.

Private engineers working for Seaquarium might have misled the county in at least one case, Danger said.